Places: Beloved

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1987

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Ohio River

*Ohio BelovedRiver. River separating the slave and free states that Sethe crosses while fleeing from Kentucky to Ohio. She gives birth to Beloved as she crosses the river. Years later, the child reappears to Sethe in mortal form along a riverbank. Toni Morrison’s choice of the Ohio River for these events is significant. One of America’s major maritime shipping routes, the Ohio extends from the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and flows for nearly one thousand miles before joining the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois.

In the nineteenth century, the Ohio river was filled with passenger-carrying flatboats and paddle-wheel ferries and served as a central conveyance for families moving west to capitalize on the frontier’s promise of prosperity. In slave narratives from the same period, however, the Ohio River symbolized freedom. For slaves, crossing the Ohio River and making one’s way into the “free” state of Ohio was tantamount to entering a land in which one’s citizenship was honored.

Sweet Home

Sweet Home. North Kentucky plantation on which Sethe begins her life as a slave. Her flight from slavery in Sweet Home to Cincinnati is based on the historical story of a fugitive slave named Margaret Garner, who began killing her own children when it appeared she would be recaptured. When Garner was tried for her crime, she was charged not with murder but with theft–for violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1856 by destroying the legal property of her family’s slave master.

That the Ohio River represented a physical demarcation between one way of life and another for so many African Americans in the nineteenth century is treated ironically by Morrison, for in no meaningful sense can Sethe be regarded as “free” in Ohio. Although she may be legally free there under the law, she is very much a prisoner of her experiences as a slave in Sweet Home. This is why Morrison presents the story not as a linear narrative but rather as a quilt, a tapestry. The kind of time that one can read on a clock and the kind of space that one can calculate on a map are of less importance in the novel than the protagonist’s experiences within a space-time continuum in which the past constantly intrudes upon the present. For instance, the novel distinguishes between “memory,” that is, the human capacity consciously to recall events that transpire in one’s life, and what Sethe experiences as “re-memory”–things that “just stay.”

Bluestone Road house

Bluestone Road house. Sethe’s Cincinnati home. The most important place in the novel, 124 Bluestone Road figures into every section of the book. Each of the novel’s three sections begins with a description of the mood of the house, as if the house itself were a living, breathing creature. The first part opens by describing the house as “spiteful”; the second part calls it “loud,” and the third part calls it “quiet.”

By the time the story begins, Sethe’s male children have been driven from her house by a paranormal presence that seems to haunt its timbers. The arrival of Paul D appears, at first, to signal a return to a more normal state of affairs. However, he soon also senses spirits hovering above the house’s stairwell that resent his presence and his command of Sethe’s attentions and do not wish him well. By the novel’s midpoint, the house drives Paul from Sethe’s bed. Later, he is driven from the house itself. Only after struggles in the novel’s last third is he able to return to the house.

With such a haunted house, Beloved might seem to be part of a long and honorable tradition of gothic tales, aligning it in particular with the nineteenth century psycho-gothic ghost stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James. However, this is only superficially true, as Beloved is about dramatizing the psychic pains of its protagonist. Beloved’s spiritual presence in the house is, effectively, Sethe’s own grief and guilt taking on something approaching perilous dimensions. The house has height, mass, and an architectural design to be sure. Sethe herself is no more delusional than her house is a fantasy. The house has all the things that one associates with what is “real.” However, the “reality” of 124 Bluestone Street in Cincinnati far exceeds what is normally meant by a “place,” for Morrison reminds readers that the most important places are those that one cannot leave behind.

BibliographyAnderson, Linda, ed. Plotting Change: Contemporary Women’s Fiction. London: Edward Arnold, 1990. Offers feminist criticism on the novels of Morrison and other women authors whose writing questions traditional modes of thought. The first part of the essay on Beloved examines historical novels by women, and the latter part analyzes the work and provides strong commentary on Morrison’s reinterpretation of historical writing.Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Includes sections on the “story behind the story,” the novel’s characters, and the general critical reaction to its publication, as well as more focused scholarly essays analyzing themes and issues in Beloved.Bowers, Susan. “Beloved and the New Apocalypse.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 18, no. 1 (Spring, 1990): 59-77. Discusses the novel in the tradition of African American apocalyptic writing. Concludes that the book maps a new direction for the African American apocalyptic tradition that is more instructive and powerful than the versions used by writers of the 1960’s.Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. Puts forth the argument that African American folklore is the basis for most African American literature and that Morrison transforms historical folk materials in her novels, creating what Harris terms “literary folklore,” allowing no dichotomy between form and substance. The study examines The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved based on this theory.Holloway, Karla F. “Beloved: A Spiritual.” Callaloo 13, no. 3 (Summer, 1990): 516-525. An analysis of the literary and linguistic devices that facilitate the revision of the historical and cultural texts of black women’s experiences. Also treats the mythological basis of the novel.McDowell, Margaret. “The Black Woman as Artist and Critic: Four Versions.” The Kentucky Review 7 (Spring, 1987): 19-41. Discusses the significance of the work of Morrison and other African American women writers because of the broadness of their inquiry and the intensity of their commitment to issues related to art, race, and gender.Samuels, Wilfred D., and Clenora Hudson-Weems. Toni Morrison. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Focuses on the analysis of the entire body of Morrison’s work, giving a thorough character and thematic analysis of the author’s novels through Beloved.Simpson, Ritashona. Black Looks and Black Acts: The Language of Toni Morrison in “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved.” New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Focuses on Morrison’s successful struggle to represent African American lanuage and linguistic traditions without relying on nonstandard grammar or syntax. The author, Simpson argues, chooses language that “acts black” over language that “looks black.”Spaulding, A. Timothy. “Ghosts, Haunted Houses, and the Legacy of Slavery: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the Gothic Impulse.” In Re-forming the Past: History, the Fantastic, and the Postmodern Slave Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005. Discusses Beloved in the context of a broader movement toward representing the history of slavery in the United States through the lens of the supernatural and the subversion of realist narrative conventions.Weinstein, Philip M. What Else but Love? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Extended discussion of the representation of race’s effects on loving relationships–from parent-child to romantic–by two of the United States’ greatest authors. Includes a chapter juxtaposing Beloved with Light in August (1932).
Categories: Places